It's difficult to understate the significance of a car as evocative as the 356. Designed by Ferry Porsche himself when father Professor Ferdinand was in prison after the Second World War, it lit the touchpaper on one of the most successful dynasties in motoring and motor racing. But what makes the 356 appeal now? It's the combination of history, fun and low-maintenance motoring. The formula was simple: it was to be a sports coupe based loosely on a design for Volkswagen, which was first produced in Wolfsburg in 1939 and went on to be known as one of the most distinctive cars on the planet - the Beetle.
The 356's basic composition remained steadfast throughout production. Buyers got an air-cooled, petrol-fired engine with four horizontally opposed cylinders mounted down behind the rear axle. That means an inherent low centre of gravity, and therefore engaging handling.
There were a number of engines available, ranging from the earliest 1.1-litre cars to the rare and incredibly desirable 2.0-litre, four-cam models. The 356 also spawned a variety of extremely high-level motor sport projects, culminating in successful campaigns at Le Mans, the Mille Miglia and the Monte Carlo Rally - to name but a few. The innovative front suspension layout was borrowed from the Silver Arrow Auto Union grand prix cars Ferdinand Porsche had worked on before starting his own firm.
It wasn't without its trials, though. Thanks to swing axles at the back, roadgoing 356s had a tendency to lift at the rear during harder cornering, snapping quickly and often irretrievably into oversteer as the changes in camber angles of the rear wheels caused loss of grip.
This gave rise to a new driving technique called 'wishening', which involved competition drivers sawing at the wheel of their 356, coaxing it into oversteer with each turn of the wheel and winding it off once the skid began before doing it all over again. It was the only way to retain momentum as the back of the car pitched up and down through the bend - it's certainly a spectacle. Happily, the car's appeal was cemented by the support of well-known owners including Steve McQueen, Sean Connery and French President Georges Pompidou.
Engine four-cylinder horizontally opposed, air-cooled petrol - 1.1-litre, 1.3-litre, 1.5-litre and 1.6-litre pushrod; 1.5, 1.6 and 2.0-litre 4-cam Carrera engines
Power 40bhp to 130bhp, 47lb ft to 119lb ft
Top speed 126mph
Gearbox Volkswagen four-speed non- or semi-synchronised manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODY AND CHASSIS
It's important you carefully check the corrosion-prone areas of the car. Marque expert Andy Prill explains. 'The 356 has a steel monocoque and all the models will rust if not properly protected or looked after. The battery floor and main floors are the most commonly affected areas, followed by the sills and doors. Good underseal is essential and rubber seals are also important, otherwise cars will rust from inside to out.'
Most have seen some sort of restoration, but to find a good one you'll need an eye for the finer points. 'The devil is in the detail - not just in terms of the obvious but in the way that the metalwork is finished and the restoration methods used,' advises Andy.
Prill reports that most body panels are readily available. 'A few aren't, but can be made easily enough. A Danish firm called Simonsen supplies Porsche.'
The Simonsen panels can be bought through Karmann Konnection. Sales manager Andy Rickard says, 'A floorpan is £198 per half (front or rear). A full nose cone is £1750; doors are £1500 each. A new hood will cost £550 for Speedster, Roadset and Cabriolet models.'
ENGINE AND DRIVETRAIN
Assuming a conscientious maintenance regime, owners can expect few issues.
'Porsche's byword was reliability and it didn't like warranty claims, so only the best designs and materials were used,' says Prill. 'Of the pushrod engines it tends to be the lower-power units that are the most reliable. Porsche made a few mistakes along the way - the thermostatic oil valve of 1957 being a case in point. In a strange way it's the engine's reliability that ends up going full circle and becomes a negative because they will run to the point of destruction and then it's too late.'
Oil leaks are common and usually simple fixes - some engines will require a rebuild but many can be fixed by a set of gaskets, which usually costs around £180-£250.
'The four-cam engines are much more complex but will give very reliable service if maintained properly,' says Prill.
Andy suggests engines generally need a rebuild at intervals between 60,000 and 100,000 miles, and this can cost £6k-8k if all of the main parts - such as the cranksharft - can be re-used.
'The Carrera [quad-cam] engine is different - rebuilds can cost from £15k to £20k for an inspection rebuild, £60k to £100k if major parts are required.'
Porsche engineered its gearboxes so well they can regularly see more than 250,000 miles without a rebuild.
BRAKES AND SUSPENSION
Luckily, there's generally a wide range of braking and suspension system spares on offer for 356 owners.
'Parts supply is excellent and around 95 per cent of brake and suspension components are readily available from a variety of specialist parts suppliers,' says Prill. But if you had to replace everything including the brake drums the parts alone would be around £4500 for a drum-brake car and £3000 for a disc-braked version. Labour would be between £4000 to £6000.'
Andy wouldn't advise playing with the geometry too much. 'The factory settings work well. You can lower the ride height but it's not advisable to go too low because this will cause premature wear of the axles and fulcrum plates in the differential. The 356s are sensitive to tyre size; the largest I suggest is a 175x15 because going larger destroys the handling characteristics.'
First decide which 356 you want to buy - and there's no shortage of options. A clean, restored and ready-to-drive car may cost more to buy but needs little outlay to run.
A tatty non-restored car, however, is likely to cost far more to get up to scratch before you can enjoy it.
When you've found a car, Andy strongly suggests having a pre-purchase inspection service carried out by a 356 expert.
'Because 356 prices have been increasing I'm seeing a lot of mutton dressed as lamb. However, the Porsche Club Great Britain will provide you with help and advice.'
Porsche's Kardex records contain vital information about how the car left the factory. It's useful for seeing which colour it was painted, the engine number and so on.